Seth Foster- July 29, 2021
i squeeze ma’s hands tighter as we walk out of the funeral home sunshine hits my face with heat i lift my face up to the sun and squint the sun light and tears on my face are hot and cold at the same time it feels funny i look at ma the strings from her glasses sway as we walk tears hang on the bottom of her chin
the only other person i know who died was my nanna nanna was old and sickly she wasn’t old and sickly she was more pretty than anybody
we wait for the bus at the bus stop one block from the funeral parlor
she jokes around with her friends on her stoop she sees me and waves her hand and says hi i like her because she says hi to me when all the other kids call me fatty watty four eyes or waldo the walrus
ma lets me put the change in the fair box her hand is in my back and we find a seat i sit down first and look at the street and the people and cars and stores the bus hisses next stop people get on
ma what’s a pimp
i don’t know what a pimp is but yesterday thursday the channel 8 newsman says
“The main suspect in the brutal attack of Penny Simpson was captured in Ohio today. He is believed to have been a pimp. He is being held in custody without bail .”
“A pimp is a man who isn’t very nice. ”
do men hit women a lot
do pimps kill women all the time
“Not all the time. Sometimes. Pimps just aren’t too nice to the women that work for them.”
as the bus heads down the street i remember everything i can about her i make a list to myself good looking brown like cinnamon big smile clean teeth a friendly face
puffy afro skinny legs blue miniskirts my brother called her popsicle sticks legs my brother called her a high school dropout
why did the pimp man do what he did to her
“Some people do crazy stuff like that for reasons you don’t know about yet. When you get older, you’ll understand better about these kinds of things.”
i look at my hands
kev is her brother but has buck teeth kev and me are opposites he is skinny and fast i am fat and slow he keeps the neighborhood bullies away from me and i help him with homework so he doesn’t get in trouble with his mom we are best friends ever since kindergarten
the day the teacher brings a television to class to watch Apollo 13 take off the school van drops me off in front of my house i walk over to kev’s house kev plays in his back yard
whatcha’ doing kev
“Penny got a new boyfriend or something. We have to stay in the backyard until they leave.”
we sit in his backyard and count all the candies in a box of mike and ikes as we eat them we lose count i tell kev clyde the glide is way better than earl the pearl he says he likes wilt better than lew alcindor i run my hands through the grass the blades tickle my fingers
after a while we watch her boyfriend walk down the back steps and out the side gate with his head down low another boyfriend comes in the gate and up the steps a few minutes later he has his head down low too
in a few weeks one or two boyfriends became four or more she counts money behind a screen door she licks her finger after each bill she gives kev and me five whole dollars each to keep our mouths shut
the bus stops at another stop and an old man gets on he sees ma and asks her how she is doing he sits down he asks ma, “How was the funeral service?”
i cover my ears
one afternoon she gets in a cadillac before her ma comes home from work she gets in about a block away near the burnt out store i watch her during the night from under my covers i hear her laughing while a car engine runs she comes back late late night after my ma is asleep
the bus passes the junction and heads down dixwell avenue we are no longer in the downtown area we pass by the projects and some of the houses on this street are boarded up there are more burnt out and empty buildings on dixwell a lot of this area got ruined during the riots no one fixed it back up we go by the big church we hit shelton avenue and drive past the factory
the old man gets off the bus and says bye to my ma i get up on my knees and lean against the window and close my eyes sunlight shines through the trees and buildings and red and black splotches pop up on my eyelids when i open my eyes i see the school in the distance we are getting close to our stop the stop is across the street from the school
ma grabs my hand the bus stops the back door makes a hissing noise as it open
we get off in the back of the bus the school is almost a whole block long the school is across the street from where ma and i are walking i can’t look at the school i look at my feet and hold ma’s hand out of the corner of my eye i see we go by the first grass part area with the flag then the glass doorways and marble stairs is next to the second grass part i can’t look
it isn’t real it’s like a ghost it isn’t real we pass the school from the corner of my eye i only see the cross street i turn my head to look back and the grass part is empty we cross the street
wednesday is the wake and ma wants to know if i will be okay home by myself i say yes i don’t act scared in front of her ma leaves me home by myself
after the wake a group of ma’s friends come by our house wearing their sunday best big hats and shiny shoes i am sitting cross legged on the living room carpet watching a game-show
“Welcome to the show… And where are you guys from?”
hi sister edwards
“That would be Kalamazoo Michigan.”
“Hello little fella, you being good?”
“And how long have you been married?”
“Oh, we have been married thirteen years.”
more of ma’s friends and other ladies come over i smell lye soap mothballs peppermint candy perfume the stink of funky underarms the women sit upright at ma’s kitchen table in chairs and cross their ankles
the fan in the window makes a humming noise and even with the tv up i can hear them
“A pretty gal with no God given sense don’t have much else to do after dropping outta high school.”
“Who you tellin’?”
“I wish a man would try to get me to do something like that…”
“I wish some no good pimp would put his hands on me…”
“Be the last time .”
“What it look like, my daughter going around with boys for money?”
“You see she weren’t raised right.”
i jump up and i run to the front room and jam my head deep in the sofa pillows i breathe fast I scream
all of you heard her sunday morning and you didn’t do nothing nothing it’s not her fault it’s not her fault leave her alone
when we step up on the curb on our block i start to cry but force myself to stop but i can’t i hear myself moan i try to be as quiet as i can ma stops she looks down at me ma asks if i want some candy to feel better she gives me peppermint from her purse i stop crying i squint my eyes as tight as i can and see a little bit her house is on the same side of the street we have to pass it
i feel something is watching me i want to run i breathe heavy through my nose we pass her house i count my steps until we are a few steps away from our house and ma opens her purse to get the house key
i really want to tell my mother the truth holding it in is hard
tuesday after school a detective from downtown comes by to ask me questions he has bushy sideburns like the man in the western ma watches on fridays he wears a blue suit he talks quietly to my mother he walks over to me and gets down on one knee he smiles and i see yellow teeth he has bad breath
he calls my name and asks
“Do you remember this past Sunday you were crying when your mother came home?”
“Why were you crying when your mother came home Sunday morning?”
i had a bad dream sir
the detective looks at my mother
“This is important. Now, did you hear or see anything else that made you scared?”
“There’s a nice girl lives next door to you. Her name is Penny. Something bad happened to her. Her brother is your best pal, right? She’s your friend too, right? She likes you, right?”
i nod and squeeze my lips so i won’t cry
“Some people say that she was arguing with someone Sunday morning right before your mother came home. We want to catch the man who did something bad to her. She’s your friend so you want us to catch him, right?”
i nod my jaw quivers
“I know you are a good kid. You’re smart. Your mother says you want to be a professor. Not many kids your age want to be a professor. Your mother is so proud of you. Your mother knows you are a great kid and your mother is sure that you would tell us if you saw anything or heard anything that made you scared that morning. Is she right?”
“So, did you hear or see anything that made you scared that morning?”
no sir i just had a bad dream
i start to cry so loud that i get a headache
i don’t tell my mother that i lied to the detective so instead i ask her
ma can i sit out here on the porch for a little while
“Are you ok honey?”
she rubs the top of my head with her hands it feels so good
im ok ma i just want to sit out here for a few minutes
“Well, if you are feeling ok then you can sit out by yourself for a few minutes. I got an idea. How about I go and make you a grilled cheese sandwich? Would you like that?”
yes ma thanks and a little mustard on the bread too
“Just a little mustard. Gotcha. I have to call Auntie Ann and then I’ll make your sandwich. Don’t stay out here too long and don’t mess up your good shoes and clothes.”
ma jangles her keys while opening the front door
i sit on the stoop and look at the front of the school
sunday morning i wake right up when i hear a loud scream i think i’m dreaming i hear it again i think the tv is on it is hot and ma let me sleep in the front room on the floor it is cooler out here i yell ma then i remember it’s sunday and she’s at sunrise bible study she’s not home
i hear it again it’s louder and more scary i turned off the fan to hear where it is coming from it’s coming from outside the house i run to the window
from our second floor i can make out a yellow car one block over in front of the school in the middle of the street two blurs are dancing no a man is fighting with a woman she’s wearing a shiny top like a singer he chokes her he lets her go and says bad words at her he slaps her face hard the slaps echo off the school sounding like firecrackers she goes for his face and he grabs her hands and calls her another bad word she gets away and runs
she makes it to the patch of grass he catches up to her and pushes her to the ground from behind he picks her up he hits her some more
“God someone help me please. Call the cops. Please help me. Please. Please.”
i run for my glasses i run back for a better look
my heart pounds i hear a buzzing sound in my ears i take off to my mother’s room and hide behind the big chair i start crying i still hear her screams i hear him using bad words and slapping her after a few minutes a car roars away it is quiet
i don’t dare move
i hear my mother coming up the back stairs i run to the kitchen almost falling on the floor she sees me and runs and hugs me
“What’s the matter baby?”
i had a nightmare mommy i’m scared
my nose is running and i’m crying and trying to catch my breath i fib to ma i still hear her screaming for help i fib my body shakes really hard i feel like i am going to throw up i fib to my mother
i get up from the porch and walk to the school
monday the neighbors are worrying people are talking about it all ma and i watch the evening news
“The body of Penny Simpson was found today in an abandoned lot on Webster Avenue in New Haven last night. She suffered multiple stab wounds. An unidentified man who she was seen with last is being sought by the police for questioning. She was 19 years old.”
stabbed i can’t breathe
earlier that same day i watch kev and his mom get in a police car lights spinning kev shivers as if he is freezing cold
i walk around the front of the school i see my house i see her house
i walk by her house i stop and look at the front door
i sit down on her stoop
On Friday, two days before she went missing, I sit on their stoop waiting for Kevin. It is our TV day. He is late. It is already past 3:30. In my pocket are slices of bologna in a baggie bag. Kevin and I planned to make bologna sandwiches to celebrate the end of the school year next week. Kevin has bread and cheese. I have sliced bologna from the ‘fridge.
His mother is a nurse’s aide and works second and third shifts sometimes at different hospitals. Our mothers had okayed my coming over right after school on certain days. They have a color television. By law I have to be back home no later than 4:05.
She comes up to the house while I am sitting there.
“Kev’s not home yet?”
“Naw, I’m just sitting here waiting. ”
“Well come on in and wait,” she smiles and jangles her keys while opening the front door.
“Go ahead and wait in the front room. I’ll turn on the television.”
We enter the house. At the end of the vestibule sunlight is beaming through the living room doorway slanting downward. I march in and plop down on the sofa. She switches on the television.
Rifleman is on.
In Kevin’s, a scent of fresh flowers always floats in the air. Today a hint of an unusual smell makes me feel nauseous, bad milk or something.
Rifleman shoots a man who was been hiding on a rooftop. The man falls to the ground. Rifleman gives the townsfolk a speech.
Suddenly, I jump right up off the sofa and land on my feet. Would I get into trouble for being inside Kevin’s house without Kevin here? I only had permission to be in here with Kevin and his mother, or with Kevin and Penny, but not without Kevin.
Would ma’ get mad?
I feel uneasy. My knees begin to itch and a bead of sweat crawls down my forehead. The inside of my stomach tells me that something is off. I get goose bumps like I am being creeped out by scary music.
I decide to leave and go straight home. I walk and turn off the T.V.
As I turn to call her, to let her know I am going home, she comes into the living room. She is reading a note out loud. I don’t understand a word because her blouse is undone a little and I can see her bra.
My heart races. The only time I’d seen a bra is when I looked in the lady’s underwear section in the back of my mother’s Sears catalogues. A strange brew of fear and anticipation runs through my body.
Now I know ma’ is definitely going to be mad.
Handing me the note she smiles.
The note is from Kevin. It basically asks his sister that if she sees me, to tell me that he will not be home for sandwiches today. His mom is taking him shopping.
“Kev’s not coming. You hungry? I just put on some water to boil for hot dogs. You can have some if you want. I know your mom wants you home a little past four. So, you can eat the hot dogs and go home as soon as you’re finished. Okay?”
“Sure,” I nod.
I quickly come up with a story to cover my tracks if needed.
I sit at the kitchen table. I finger a small bolt under my chair connecting the leg to the seat. WAVZ radio is running an ad about the West Haven Yankees.
Four hot dogs plop into a pot of boiling water. She fills two paper cups with Kool-Aid from a sweating pitcher on the counter. Ice cubes and red drink flow into the cups one at a time.
She places the cups on the table and goes back to the counter.
“You go to a private school in Hamden, right?”
At the counter I see her profile. She has tied a flowered scarf around her head with the knot out front. My mom does the same thing whenever she cooks in the kitchen.
“What’s the school called?”
She unpeels two paper plates from a stack on top of the refrigerator and puts them down on the counter. Then she opens the refrigerator door and pulls out ketchup, mustard, and a plastic bag of hot dog buns.
“You’re a smart kid ain’t cha?”
“I guess so. ”
She parts four hot dog buns from the bag and puts two on each plate. She pours ketchup on one side of the buns and then she pops open the jar of mustard and smears a dab on the other side with a plastic spoon.
She grabs a fork and bobs the hot dogs up and down. Drops of water boil out and sizzle on the gas burner.
The radio starts playing the latest hit.
“That’s my song. ”
She moves her head like the dancers on “Soul Train”. She sings along in a clear voice.
I sit still. I don’t want to embarrass myself with any attempts at unnecessary body motions.
After the song, local news comes on and she lowers the volume. She sits across the table and gives me my two hot dogs on the paper plate. She puts her plate down and lowers her head and mumbles grace. When she finishes, we both take bites at the same time and chew.
“If I was smart like you, I would write books and magazine stories. ”
“Yes,” her mouth moves, voice muffled by chewed hot dogs, “or become an airline stewardess, or go to school and be a real nurse. My mother is just a nurse’s aide. ”
Her face beams. She swallows.
“You know what I would really love to do?”
My voice is about half an octave higher. I never talked to an older girl all by myself before.
“I would really, really love to study animals and have my own nature show. I would call the show Penny’s Pets. ”
She laughs to herself.
“That’s great. ”
“Can you imagine travelling all over the world to see all those cool animals?”
Her face glows.
“I don’t tell nobody this stuff. I don’t hang around with too many smart people like you.”
She takes a small sip of her juice. I pick up my cup and drink it all in a few gulps.
The funky instrumental “Frankenstein” comes on. She moves her fingers in piano fashion following the music.
Then she suddenly stops. She wraps her arms around herself as if she feels a cool breeze. She turns her head to the side and stares at something unseen. She is still. She isn’t breathing. After a moment she looks at me.
“I have to get outta here. Sometimes things in life make you do things that you know you shouldn’t do. I just can’t be around here no more. ”
She shrugs her shoulders and stuffs some more of the hot dog in her mouth and chews. She dabs ketchup from her chin with a napkin.
As she chews, slowly her glow begins to fade. She seems to age. Her cheeks relax to the point they droop. Her eyes dim. Her smile curves downward into something that looks like worry. Her shoulders slouch and then her head drops into her hands.
I feel I have to say something to get her to be happy, to glow again. When she smiles she looks really, really pretty.
I speak in a slow, low voice.
“Penny you are prettier than an angel. ”
Her head shoots up. She swipes under her eyes with the back of her hand.
“An angel? Me? Really?”
Her lips curve upward.
“Yes, you are. And you can be smart. You just have to read more books. That’s all.”
She looks down.
“A girl like me can’t do too much in this world.”
“Yes, you can. All you have to do is try hard and never give up. No matter what. You can do whatever you want.”
She lifts her head and looks at me. I hold my breath. She breaks out into a smile and begins laughing. She shakes her head from side to side. Then she stops laughing and wipes her mouth with her napkin.
“You’re so sweet. ”
She picks up her other hot dog with one hand. With the other she reaches across the table and squeezes my forearm. Her hand feels warm and it moves a little like a baby chick.
She looks me in the eye and she lets go.
She stuffs the last half of the other hot dog in her mouth.
Then we sit quiet. I can’t think of anything else to say. I glance at the clock on the wall. I have to go.
I push away from the table. The chair grunts along the floor. I stand up on trembling legs.
She looks at me and says, “Hey when you get older, you think you and me can be friends?”
“Sure,” I say excitedly, “and you can send me postcards from all over the world when you’re a stewardess and pictures of wild animals from your television show.”
Her nose wiggles a bit, “I like that Professor. I really do. ”
I feel like a king and strut towards the back door.
After opening the door, I pop up my hand and wave, “Well, bye Penny. Thanks for the hot dogs.”
She smiles and waves back.
I look at her as she starts to yawn. Then I quietly close the door.
Seth Foster is a graduate student in a MA English program in the Northeast. Writing and directing one-act plays off-off Broadway for many years has heightened his love of storytelling. He’s currently doing research for a novel that takes place in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance.